Lisa Telford is fine with paying the new $15 activity fee required for every student in the Hernando County school system this year.
"I have no problem with it, if it's for the kids," said Telford, who has one child at Eastside Elementary and one at Hernando High.
But Telford said she hasn't paid the $30 yet because she didn't know about the fee.
"I haven't seen anything come home from the schools," she said.
A lack of awareness about the fee is probably among several reasons why, two months into the school year, the collection rate is just one in four students, superintendent Bryan Blavatt said this week.
Of the district's roughly 22,300 students, 5,690 had submitted payment as of Oct. 25, according to data submitted by each school to the district's finance office. That adds up to $85,350.
The School Board approved the fee as budget cuts were made earlier this year to help defray the costs of supporting clubs, extracurricular activities and school functions. There is a new, separate fee for athletics, and students must pay that fee or arrange a payment plan before participating in sports.
There is no penalty for failing to pay the $15 activity fee, and students are not to be denied participation in school events. There is a big incentive, though, Blavatt said: The fee includes insurance coverage for students who take part in school activities.
A letter announcing the fee was posted on the district's website earlier this year but was not mailed to homes. Now it's up to each school to encourage parents to pay. Blavatt acknowledged that some schools are being more aggressive than others.
There is built-in motivation for schools to try, though, because all money collected stays at the school.
The schools, however, face some stiff challenges in efforts to collect, principals said this week.
Some parents are confused about whether they have to pay the activity fee at all. Some assume they are covered if they pay the new athletics fees or existing fees to participate in band. They are not.
High schools probably have a tougher time because students have more fees to pay, said Hernando High principal Ken Pritz. He said his school used its automated phone system and email to notify parents of the fee, but has collected just $600.
The still-sputtering economy is a problem, too. Family budgets already take a hit early in the school year to cover the cost of clothes and supplies.
"We're in difficult times, and just as schools are struggling with finances, we know parents are, too," said Weeki Wachee High principal Dennis McGeehan. About 15 percent of that school's roughly 1,000 students have paid.
Some schools are using an effective motivator: free stuff.
At Brooksville's Moton Elementary, which has a dress code, students receive a free T-shirt to wear on Fridays. So far, about 40 percent of the school's roughly 620 students have paid the fee — a respectable figure considering Moton has one of the district's highest rates of students on the free or reduced-price meal program, principal Mark Griffith said.
"Getting the shirts made it a lot more palatable," Griffith said.
At Parrott Middle, another Brooksville school with a dress code and a high number of low-income families, students receive a T-shirt and an assignment planner. About half of Parrott's 840 students have paid, principal Leechelle Booker said.
Students at West Hernando Middle, west of Brooksville, receive a card that gets them free admission to some sporting events and dances.
At Springstead High in Spring Hill, students receive a Chick-fil-A coupon and can choose two of several other incentive options. The two most popular so far have been $5 off a ticket to the homecoming dance and $10 off a semester parking pass, according to figures provided by the school. About 22 percent of Springstead's 1,850 students have paid, bringing $6,180 into school coffers.
Most of these offerings cut into the activity fee proceeds, but it's worth it, principals said.
"We wanted to give the kids some incentives and say, 'We're not taking this (fee) and not giving something back to you,' " Springstead principal Susan Duval said. "If we can get at least half the kids to pay, it would be a tremendous help."
A more affluent student body doesn't necessarily translate to high collection rates.
Roughly 40 percent of students have paid the fee at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, a magnet school where parental involvement is robust and the percentage of students in the free or reduced-price meal program is about half the district average. The school has not offered any incentives yet, but the leadership team is considering it, principal Sue Stoops said.
Schools have a lot of leeway in how they spend the money as long as the activities benefit students directly, Blavatt said. The only rule is that the money is not to be spent on instructional materials.
At a time when school discretionary budgets have been sliced, principals are making the most of that flexibility.
Several schools, including Parrott and Moton, are using the money to fund their positive behavior programs. Students who follow rules earn points that can be exchanged for goodies.
Some fee proceeds also helped pay for decorations for Moton's fall festival, Griffith said. The school cut the price of festival admission by $1, thanks to activity fee money, he said.
About 35 percent of students at J.D. Floyd K-8 School in Spring Hill have paid, principal Ray Pinder said. The money will go toward the school's positive behavior program and to groups like Kids Helping Kids, an after-school offering in which Floyd students study the performing arts under the tutelage of high school students.
Pinder told parents and teachers that he would try to limit the amount of fundraisers at the school and use the activity fee money instead.
In addition to supporting clubs and organizations, Springstead will use some of its money for the school's annual Evening of Excellence awards program at the end of the school year, and some to pay for uniforms, equipment, transportation and officials for athletics teams. In a letter to parents, school administrators explain this move by noting that 75 percent of the new athletics fee — $45 for the first sport and $25 for the second, with a cap of $70 — goes back to the district office.
Collection efforts will continue throughout the year. When parents come to Pinder and say they are having trouble making ends meet, "I say pay me what you can, when you can," he said.
Parents at West Hernando Middle, where the collection rate is about 12 percent, got a letter reminding them about the fee and offering an option to pay in three installments. Principal Rick Markford wants to use some of the money to pay for new equipment for the school's climbing wall, which is currently out of commission, and for new elective classes.
"We're hopeful," he said, "because otherwise programs are going to die."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.